Pimples and boils are troublesome skin problems that can sometimes cause similar symptoms.

Pores are tiny openings in the skin that allow oil to seep out and keep the skin soft. A pimple is a result of a pore becoming clogged.

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A boil, or furuncle, is a pus-filled lump caused by bacterial infection. It can appear red and swollen.

While a person can treat both boils and pimples at home, boils can sometimes turn into a severe infection known as a carbuncle.

Learn more about the difference between boils and pimples in this article.

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Causes

Image of a pimple
Pimples may be more common during puberty.

A pimple is often the result of excess oil production or a buildup of dead skin cells and bacteria. People may be more likely to develop pimples during puberty, when the body makes more hormones that can cause excessive production of oil.

Sometimes a bacteria type called Propionibacterium acnes can infiltrate the skin and cause further redness, pain, and irritation.

Pimples most commonly occur on the face, but can also appear on the back or neck. They have many forms, including blackheads, whiteheads, and papules. Some may be pus-filled, so they may closely resemble boils.

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Staphylococcus aureus bacteria usually live on the surface of the skin, but can reach the inner layers via a cut, bug bite, or infected hair follicle. This infiltration can result in a boil.

Boils are most likely to appear on the sweatiest areas of the skin. These include the:

  • armpits
  • buttocks
  • face
  • neck
  • thighs

Boils start out as a small, round bump, which is usually swollen and red. Over several days, the bump will fill with pus. As the bump grows, pressure on the skin increases, eventually causing the boil to rupture and drain.

Diagnosis

A doctor can often diagnose a boil or a pimple with a visual examination. The doctor will ask about symptoms, when the person first noticed the bumps, and whether they have tried any treatments.

Additional symptoms, the location of the bumps, and the condition of the surrounding skin help a doctor to diagnose pimples or boils. Invasive testing is usually not required.

Treatments

Treatments for boils and pimples differ. Below, find some of the most common techniques.

Pimples

For most people, a thorough skincare routine can help to reduce the incidence of pimples. However, it can take 6 to 8 weeks for a pimple to completely heal.

A skincare routine for pimples should include:

  • washing the skin in the morning and evening with warm, not hot, water and a mild cleanser
  • using a product containing benzoyl peroxide or salicylic acid, to reduce oil and buildup of dead skin cells in the pores
  • applying a gentle moisturizer to reduce any dryness that may have resulted from acne treatment
  • exfoliating once or twice a week with a gentle scrub to prevent dead skin cells from collecting
  • avoiding squeezing or popping the pimple, as this can invite bacteria into the skin and lead to scarring

If pimples do not go away with home remedies, a person may wish to speak to a dermatologist, a doctor who specializes in managing skin conditions.

Boils

Boil on an elbow
A warm compress may be a recommended treatment for a boil.

Applying a warm compress to a boil will help to reduce pain and may encourage the boil to drain. If the boil is in a hard-to-reach area, a person can try resting in a hot bath instead.

Over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can also reduce discomfort.

A doctor may prescribe an antibiotic ointment designed to fight the bacteria inside the boil. Or, they may prescribe oral antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading to the blood stream.

In some cases, a doctor will surgically drain the boil and apply topical antibiotics to the area, to combat the infection.

A boil and the skin around it should be kept clean and dry. A person should wash their hands with soap and water after touching a boil, to avoid spreading the infection. Sharing personal care items, such as towels, razors, or makeup brushes can also pass the infection from person to person.

When to see a doctor

If pimples are very painful or do not improve with over-the-counter treatments, see a doctor.

A person with a boil should seek professional advice if they have the following symptoms:

  • more than one boil at a time
  • a fever
  • a boil wider than 2 inches
  • a boil that has not disappeared after 2 weeks, despite efforts to treat it at home
  • a boil that keeps coming back
  • a boil near the eye

Several boils that appear in the same location can join together, forming a cluster, which is known as a carbuncle. This can lead to an infection that causes cold or flu-like symptoms.

Boils and pimples are bothersome but highly treatable skin conditions.

If over-the-counter and home remedies are not sufficient, see a doctor for additional treatment.